David Brower Dean - School of Business & Hospitality Management , State University of New York at Delhi
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to change, but it has impacted the hospitality industry exponentially. Government mandates to halt or significantly modify operations have forced many lodging establishments to pivot to meet these directives and the expectations of their guests while maintaining high levels of service.
As many can attest, this has not been an easy process, but some elements of the "new normal" may be perceived by guests and operators alike as silver linings that lead to more effective and efficient operations, and consequently, higher levels of guest satisfaction.
1. Contactless Environments
While many lodging organizations have long since leveraged technology to enhance the guest experience, the pandemic has increased the rate at which new innovations are being added and existing processes expanded. For example, contactless guest service has provided a platform to revolutionize processes such as reservations, check-in, and services received throughout the stay, including room access, amenities, and updates on charges. It has provided an avenue for checkout without stopping at the front desk. Direct customer-contact service roles are being retooled as well.
For example, concierge services are being replaced with downloadable apps, door attendants traded out for sensor-drive automatic doors, bell services provided only upon request or when guests are physically unable to carry their own luggage. The list goes on and will correlate to the level of personalized services offered by a particular property.
Some limited and select service brands have already mastered these ideas while full-service resorts are just embarking on them. In the pre-pandemic era, some argued that the replacement of these functions with technological innovations was depersonalizing the guest experience, but many are now reassessing their opinions. It has been said that these changes were initially prompted by a less engaged millennial generation of business and leisure travelers, but now all travelers are more aware of the number of touchpoints they have with service providers during their time away from home.
Regardless, properties will need to develop effective methods of assessing the efficacy of such technology related to ease of use and functionality. It will also be critical that these organizations partner with their internet service providers and local area network engineers to ensure that wireless connectivity and other technologies are fast, reliable, and easy to use.
Open and transparent methods of communication – at all levels and in all directions – will continue to be essential for lodging organizations to provide high-quality service to their guests. Proactive and clear messages to guests will help to quell concerns related to cleaning protocols, quarantine expectations, and social distancing while at the hotel. It is critical to provide updates, especially to return guests, as to what services and amenities have been modified or enhanced to manage expectations prior to check-in.
Direct outreach to guests will also provide an opportunity to inform them of updates related to local attractions and services in the community prior to their arrival so that they may plan accordingly. This allows guests a direct link to the property and their remote concierge to assist with arranging for alternative activities should that be necessary.
Cancellation policies must also be clearly outlined to ensure that guests understand their rights. Some municipalities have introduced regulations that outline the expectations of service providers relative to these policies, but in essence, flexibility and clarity are key. Listening, actively and empathetically, to the concerns of guests will provide insight to their needs and expectations and allow operators to more efficiently address them.
Communication with staff is also essential. Providing high-quality guest service starts with taking care of employees. By ensuring that proper personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, gloves, and sanitizer is available and that other forms of protection such as Plexiglas barricades are installed, staff will feel more confident in their ability to safely interact with guests. Clearly articulating expectations and updates to standard operating procedures are critical as well. When possible, securing the feedback of staff related to these updates is helpful as staff who contribute are more likely to adhere to them.
3. Human Resources
Training staff properly will also help with consistently and effectively implementing new practices, and in our current times, will help with preventing the spread of illness. Lastly, it is important to remain in touch with staff who are currently separated from the establishment – whether that be due to illness or furlough. Showing genuine concern will reaffirm a sense of connection with the property and colleagues – leading to a greater likelihood that the individual returns to their post when they are well again or asked to do so.
Staffing will likely prove to be challenging in the months ahead due to a number of factors. Furloughed employees may have taken jobs in other industries, prospective employees may be apprehensive to jump into direct guest contact roles, and generous unemployment benefits all contribute to a shrinking pool of applicants. The February 2021 jobs report as presented by CNBC indicated that many front-line roles in the hospitality industry are growing faster than expected, and as demand exceeds supply, employers will need to get creative to attract and retain key talent. As noted above, training will be instrumental to the individual employee's success, and will directly correlate to higher levels of customer satisfaction. Now more than ever, operators must dial in to guest needs and find creative and flexible solutions to meet those needs.
Guest service recovery will be paramount, and quick resolutions to concerns will lead to more favorable reviews. Keeping a close eye on review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp! as well as social media will allow hoteliers to quickly address concerns about the property. Having a designated person responsible for this function will lead to consistent replies, a better accounting for trends related to specific concerns, and ensure that upper management has the ability to hold one individual accountable.
4. Food & Beverage
The current state of the world has also provided hotels the opportunity to reinvent their food and beverage service. This amenity can vary significantly based on the complexity of the service portfolio of the property. However, even those hotels that offer full-service bars, restaurants, and event/meeting spaces are looking for ways to provide their guests with high-quality options that stay within local and state guidelines. Limited and select service properties have paved the way with grab-and-go offerings via lobby-based markets and pantries.
Take-out and pick-up options from hotel restaurants have surfaced as viable alternatives to their in-person predecessors. Outdoor seating and pop-up restaurants including snack/meal carts, food trucks, and boxed meals to name a few have proven successful in providing guests with options and leveraged the creativity of the food and beverage department. Some properties are even collaborating with local restaurants and trusted delivery companies such as Doordash and Uber Eats to tailor an in-room dining experience consistent with the level of quality of the hotel property.
5. Group Meetings
As the need for people to meet has not lessened, virtual and hybrid events have become common. Meeting planners have taken stock of their in-house capabilities, and when voids are discovered, they've outsourced these responsibilities – either completely or in part – to ensure their guests have a positive experience. Much like the hospitality industry, tech firms are developing services and platforms in concert with event professionals to quickly adapt from physical to virtual experiences. These resources can help at every stage of the planning process from the request for proposal all the way through to post-event evaluations.
While the infrastructure and technology required to support a move in this direction on both fronts is rather significant, some experts are saying that many of these alternatives are here to stay. Changing traveler demographics and modified guest wants and needs will dictate what remains and what reverts back to pre-pandemic conditions, but operators will need to closely evaluate current trends and feedback to make the best decisions.
The future of hotel guest service is a mixed bag of certainty, uncertainty, clarity, and ambiguity. The overarching themes that continue to emerge include safety, security, and the fostering of good health of guests and employees. Hotels that are able to do this effectively will more comfortably achieve a competitive advantage. Properties that invest in and leverage technologies to support personal guest service will prove themselves leaders in the industry.
Direct, succinct, and regular communications both within and external to the hotel will continue to be essential to the overall effective operation of the property. Hotels with sound strategies to attract and retain quality employees – and the willingness to invest in solid orientation and ongoing training – will also find greater success.
Last, but certainly not least, companies who are prepared to embrace change and reinvent some or all of the amenities that they offer to best meet the needs of their guests will likely find themselves exceeding expectations. Silver linings have certainly emerged in the past year, and it will be up to the operators and ownership at all levels to determine how to take full advantage of their potential. Costs will be incurred to make these things happen, but in the end, they will prove to be an investment well worth making.